New Zealand has gifted the film world with many delightful personalities in years past, with one of the more recent to emerge being director Taika Waititi. His low-budget comedies have delighted many in his native country, even catching the attention of audiences overseas. And it was with much anticipation earlier this year that he released his best film to date.
On a farm deep in the NZ bush, a police car delivers juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) to his new foster family. He is warmly welcomed by his new “Aunt”, Bella (Rima Te Waita) but struggles to connect with her grizzled husband Hector (Sam Neill). At first apprehensive about his new rural lifestyle, it isn’t long before Ricky opens up to Bella, and is happy to call his newfound residence home.
Unfortunately, Ricky’s happiness doesn’t last, as the family is rocked by Bella’s sudden death and subsequent funeral. Hector, believed to be incapable of care, is advised via post that a more suitable home is being found for Ricky. Not wanting to be taken back to the authorities, Ricky fakes his own death (or at least tries to) and flees into the bush, with Hector reluctantly following suit.
One person not fooled by Ricky’s antics is child welfare officer Paula (Rachel House). She takes her role VERY seriously, going to a Fugitive-level of extremes to find the pair. And yet, despite her best efforts, Ricky and “Hec” continually dodge being captured. The duo end up spending weeks in the bush, triggering a nationwide manhunt and making them celebrities across New Zealand.
It’s a bit unfair that Sam Neill gets top billing in Wilderpeople, because Julian Dennison is the real star here. A name already familiar to Kiwi audiences, Australians were introduced to the young actor in the feel-good family flick Paper Planes, where he played the hero’s charismatic best mate, Kevin. Dennison is just as charming here, which is just as well – he has the majority of the film’s screentime, after all.
Sadly, Neill’s character isn’t as strong as Dennison’s is. Hec is supposed to come across as a reclusive grump, but at times he borders on senility, with some of his dialogue sounding mean-spirited. Neill is a very talented and engaging actor, so to see him perform this way is puzzling. For the most part though, his performance is warm and convincing, especially when acting opposite Dennison.
The other performances bring a smile to the face as well, including Rima Te Waita – she seems so genuine, you just want to give her a hug. Even the minor supporting characters are a bundle of fun, like the dim-witted constable Andy (Oscar Kightley) or bush-dwelling conspiracy theorist “Psycho Sam” (Rhys Darby). It’s quite an achievement for a film’s secondary characters to be just as likeable as the main protagonists, and says a lot about Waititi’s skill as a director.
To top it all off, the film is really funny – it’s a proper comedy. There’s fun to be had throughout, but the biggest laughs come from the climax, which sees a beat-up Toyota Hilux face-off against half of New Zealand’s armed forces. (I assume it’s half – New Zealand is a very small country.) Not all of the comedy is hilarious – one scene involving a series of double-entendres feels really forced – but most of it will produce a giggle, at least.
With a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it’s no wonder Taika Waititi is going places in Hollywood. It has a loveable cast and great moments of laughter, all held together by Julian Dennison’s turn as Ricky. In short, it’s an engaging romp with a great heart.